The complaints about the officiating in the NBA this season by some of its brightest offensive stars have ranged on the sauciness scale from subtle (James Harden) to sledgehammer (Damian Lillard).
And if you pay close attention to the Association, you get why that’s the case. Rules changes implemented over the summer geared toward making life a little more fair for defenses, and a noticeable emphasis by the refs to “let ‘em play" way more than we’re used to, have made a big impact a month into the season. The game looks and feels different compared to previous campaigns and the stats—like the decreased number of FT attempts per game, fewer fouls per game, and lower offensive efficiency rates—hammer that home.
Dynamos like Harden and Lillard hate it. This current iteration of NBA basketball feels foreign to them compared to the conditions they’re used to thriving under. And when they’re not complaining on the court to the refs, they’re struggling to stay silent about their vexation off it.
“The way the game is being officiated is unacceptable,” Lillard said after the Blazers loss to the Clippers earlier this week. “I don’t want to go too deep into it so they make a big deal out of it, but the explanations that’s getting missed, I mean, come on. I felt like coming in, the rule change wouldn’t affect me, because I don’t do the trick the referees. I don’t do the trick plays. It’s just unacceptable.”
Frustrations are to be expected when superstars must adjust to new circumstances, but unlike Lillard and some of his NBA brethren, I’m here to say what we’re seeing this season—more physicality, the elimination of the ridiculous offense-initiated fouls, and fewer trips to the free throw line—is awesome, greatly appreciated, and a welcome return to a more balanced brand of basketball that had sorely been missing.
If you’re not loving the more free-flowing game we’re seeing this season, I respectfully ask: What are you smoking? The changes the league implemented—namely no longer calling fouls for, as the NBA described it, “abnormal, abrupt, or overt non basketball moves by offensive players”—were necessary. What was fun about watching games over the past few seasons expecting to hear a whistle every other possession? Who wants to watch one player go to the free throw line 25 times a game because they’re ultra crafty? Who wants to see somebody rewarded because they’re good at snapping their head back driving to the hole? Who wants to see a 3-point shooter get rewarded with three free throws for sloppily throwing his body into a leaning defender and launching a shot that has zero chance of going in? That doesn’t make for good entertainment, which is all the NBA really is if you boil it down. Those plays only detract from basketball’s beauty. Count your blessing that those garbage fouls are gloriously gone from the game.
“Overall the quality of the game is much, much better and the league should be commended for that,” says NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony. “And I gotta tell you, the officials have done a helluva job with how they have interpreted the new changes with the rules.”